Saudi Arabia will allow public cinemas for the first time in more than 35 years, the latest religiously-inspired restriction to fall as the kingdom strives to overhaul the economy.
The first multiplexes are expected to open in March 2018, the Ministry of Culture and Information said in a statement on Monday. The aim is to reach 2,000 screens in more than 300 cinemas by 2030, with the industry expected to contribute about $24 billion to the economy and add more than 30,000 permanent jobs, it said.
The kingdom hasn’t had public cinemas since the early 1980s, when the U.S. box office was dominated by films including E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi. After militants besieged the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, most forms of public entertainment were banned and clerics were given more control over schools, courts and social life.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been breaking established social norms in the kingdom since his rise to power in 2015, including ending a ban on female drivers — though he’s also cracked down on dissent, arresting dozens of clerics and activists and ordering the detention of senior princes and businessmen in what authorities described as an anti-corruption campaign.
The cinema plan is “central to the government’s program to encourage an open and rich domestic culture for Saudis,” the Information Ministry said.
Conservative Saudis and the country’s Islamic clerical establishment have typically frowned upon non-religious forms of entertainment, including cinema and music. Religious police still patrol shopping malls and gender segregation is enforced across the kingdom.
The government didn’t say whether the cinemas would have family-only sections, or different show times for men. Movies would be edited according to the “standards of the Kingdom” and would not “contradict with Sharia Laws and moral values,” according to a ministry statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The decision to open cinemas may attract investors as media companies look for new markets. Majid Al Futtaim, a Dubai-based developer of shopping malls and entertainment facilities, said it will work with Saudi Arabia to expand its Vox Cinemas unit’s presence in the kingdom.